Why Are Girls Less Ambitious Than Boys?

Just 36 percent of American women aspire to top jobs, according to a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy. Is this due to an "ambition gap" that begins in childhood?

Is Cinderella teaching young girls to be passive and unambitious? Or is it society's fault for sexualizing women and expecting them to always "play nice"?

The question of women's ambition was in the headlines recently after a speech by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Sandberg said that scarcity of women in top business positions in America is due to a gender “ambition gap." Watch the video of the forum and Sandberg's speech here.  

The claim was backed up by a study from the Center for Work-Life Policy, which found that American women are less ambitious than those in Brazil, China and India. According to a 2011 study by UC Davis, it will take 100 years for women in California to catch up with men as leaders of the state's top companies.

Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, was a panelist on KQED Friday morning for a forum on the issue of the "ambition gap." For Orenstein, the lack of women leaders in America is not so much due to an ambition gap, but an unwillingness for girls — and the women they become — to "put themselves out there.” Orenstein will be hosting readings and discussions of Cinderella Ate My Daughter on and .

From childhood, girls are taught that appearances and pleasing others are top priorities, says the author. Orenstein says she became concerned when her daughter developed a “princess obsession.” The fascination with "pink and pretty" teaches girls that “they can be strong and smart — but they better be hot,” said Orenstein. "Physical perfection has been recast as a source — the source — of physical empowerment," writes Ore

nstein in Cinderella Ate My Daughter.

According to Simone Marean, executive director of the Girls Leadership Institute, the "princess dynamic" flattens creativity and personality, when parents and society should instead be encouraging depth and breadth. 

Paula Davis-Laack, a psychologist specializing in stress, work, and lifestyle issues for high-achieving women, suggests a number of ways to close the ambition gap:

  • Reward and praise girls for being strong, smart, competitive, and ambitious; not pretty and princess-like.
  • Identify strong women leaders and role models and discuss them with your kids. Talk about what strengths each women possesses and how those strengths influenced her career path.
  • Encourage boys to help around the house, cook meals, and do laundry.
  • At work, make an effort to really understand the flex-time policies offered at your company. Talk to your boss and human resources personnel about ways these policies could be improved and/or enforced. Ask them to give you exact statistics about who is using these policies.
  • If you are a working mom, stop apologizing for your status as a working mom. Recent research suggests that working moms are happier than their non-working peers. Instead of justifying your status, think about the wonderful example you are setting for your kids.


Do you think girls are less ambitious than boys? Why?

Are you a parent? Do you make an active effort to instill ambition in your child or teenager? How?

Do you know of any local programs that encourage and inspire teenage girls?

Share your thoughts, ideas and experiences in the comments below.

Frances Vaught March 05, 2012 at 02:22 PM
I have always been a working mom and have felt at some points in my career judged for not staying home. But this how I look at it. I am better organized, with a huge help from my husband, who is the other held of this team. It show our daughters that now a days it takes two incomes to survive. To rely on only your husband is such a irresponsible move on any woman's part these days and a poor example to their children.
Julia Halsne March 05, 2012 at 07:59 PM
I wonder if it is not a question of less ambition, but less ego or desire to be in the top position. There are more women who own their business and get validation from that success and don't necessarily need validation in the corporate world.


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